Since leaving Hornsey Art College, where my paintings and stained glass were often in a symbolist style, I have painted from direct observation. Though living in London, I was always drawn to natural settings – wild urban gardens, as well as countryside – and found the time I spent on each painting becoming increasingly prolonged. Many of my plein-air paintings have come to be called ‘plantscapes’ rather than ‘landscapes’, as they are close-ups of natural plant communities, usually in the margins of cultivation and wilderness.
By the 1980s, I had come to feel there was a topical message about the importance of plants in ecology, economy and culture. Many of my paintings have been of untended or semi- wild urban gardens. Such small, fenced-off, owned areas of the planet offer a unique sense of closeness to nature and at the same time, a remoteness from the world. They can have an important rôle in how human beings see themselves and behave in relation to the Earth.
Contrary to their initial appearance, my paintings aren’t photographic. They are observational drawings made directly in paint, usually dispensing with preliminary drawings in other media, and painted continuously over periods of several months – though taking a break on Saturdays!
To keep up with the changing season I must keep at it, looking and painting as intently as I can, with close attention, but not tension. I put up a transparent awning so I can work in all weathers; rain gives the light a special clarity, and helps the painting to grow as well as the plants.
I look for a neglected or semi-wild corner of a private estate or garden – always in negotiation with its owners. I want to paint a community of wild plants, and to present them centre-stage with the human world modestly in the background. I start by painting the most distant features and gradually work towards the foreground, painting overlaid lattices of vegetation. This traces a journey through time as well as space, and often means that signs of seasonal change co-exist in the same picture.
People sometimes say my painting is a form of meditation, and, yes, it can bring realisations and new insights.
Subject and Technique
In painting I am in search of something I could not have imagined.
The identity of one’s subject matter is a lifelong quest, inseparable from the development of technique. Because I want to work in a live natural setting, I need to work at a certain speed. But what some painters might consider distracting details, such as individual grass-blades, have become for me essential to the subject, and integral to the picture’s structure.
Once I’ve decided on a general location, choosing the exact viewpoint is all-important. It can take me a week to identify the spot. As I shall be working there day and daily for several months, practical considerations and a sense of how the scene might change are important, but the final decision is usually based on a gut feeling – if I’m lucky, a ‘coup de foudre’.
The subject is also that of the performance itself, the outcome of the painter working from observation in a particular time and place. The picture develops in parallel with seasonal changes. What goes on the canvas is, as Harold Rosenberg wrote of abstract expressionism, ‘not a picture but an event’. (ARTnews Dec 1952 quotedby Martin Gayford 2018) But it is also a picture, and I’m curious to see what finally emerges from that initial ‘coup de foudre’.
The following video invites you to visit some of my ‘outdoor studios’:
Special thanks for the support from people who have allowed me to paint in their urban gardens or rural estates: Jackie Baker and Clement Griffith in North London; André, Eliane, Maud & Julie Saussaye, Marc Gémin & Sylvie Breuilly, Christian Gémin, Jean-Pierre & Anne Lavaud, Bruno Horcholle, Bénédicte Desvaux, Stuart & Valery Millar, in Normandy. Also to Steve and Diane Lloyd-Williams, and Michael Dickens, in the Pyrénées-Orientales (Northern Catalonia).
© John Pearce March 2017